Hockey is back. After 117 days with only trades, free agent signings and injuries to sate my hockey thirst, the NHL is back on the ice. Last night, watching Boston edge Philadelphia, while checking in on Toronto/Montreal felt good, as if the order of things had been restored. Seeing that some of my fantasy team players started off the season well was fun. Listening to Bob MacKenzie discuss some of the inside story lines from the NHL was gratifying. Unlike other professional sports, I didn't have to listen to the roster of recent arrests for domestic violence, drunk driving . . . or worse. I didn't hear about the latest suspensions for violations of the substance abuse policy. The Ryan Johansen saga was the major off-ice distraction in the NHL this off-season, and the "juiciest" piece of gossip seemed to be speculation as to which coach would be fired first. (Consensus appeared to be Carlyle, Capuano, McClellan and Hitchcock, in that order).
For a wide variety of reasons -- some good, some not so good -- the Blue Jackets are a topic of conversation around the league. After their playoff run last year, many are picking them to go deep in the playoffs. The negatives of the Ryan Johansen soap opera are fading as he returned to camp. Replacing that tale are the litany of injuries that have made the club more a M*A*S*H unit than hockey club. With Brandon Dubinksy having gone from a "tweak" and "maintenance" day to abdominal surgery in 36 hours was unsettling to many, coming on the heels of the Boone Jenner broken hand and the Nathan Horton back injury that has never been fully explained, but does not appear destined for anything approaching a rapid resolution.
Such is the life of pro sports. Last year, Bobrovsky, Jenner, Foligno, Calvert, Horton, Dubinsky, Tyutin and Murray all missed significant time, and the club found a way to prevail. With Wennberg and Dano, there is some real skill at the club's disposal this year, which should make the injury toll more bearable. There's also this guy named Bobrovsky, who can equalize any game. We are going to need to adjust our "injury translators" to decipher what club officials mean when they talk about injuries. If "tweak" = surgery, then heaven help us if Richards ever says that an injury looks "serious". "He's stable" could mean "he's dead." But I digress.
As I was watching my San Francisco Giants put away the heavily-favored Washington Nationals the other night in Game 4 of the NLDS, some comparisons between that club and the Blue Jackets came to mind. The Giants have few true headliner names on the roster -- Buster Posey being the prime example. While the Blue Jackets have lots of names that folks will recognize, the true "star power" really extends only to Bobrovsky, and perhaps Johansen, at this point. Both clubs have been victimized by injuries. Yet somehow they find a way to get the job done. The Nationals' pitching largely silenced the Giants' bats, so they manufactured runs. The series-winning "rally" consisted of a single, a sacrifice, a fly ball out and a wild pitch. Good stuff, and reminiscent of some goals by guys named Dubinsky and Foligno in the playoffs last year.
Part of the joy of this time of year is the fact that all teams have a clean slate, and what seems to be the inevitable result on paper somehow never materializes. San Jose shuts out the Kings 4 - 0 on L.A.'s "banner raising" night -- who knew? As we get ready to watch the puck drop in Buffalo tonight, the only thing that is guaranteed is that over the next 82 games, there will be guys and teams who will surprise, and guys and teams who will disappoint. Once the playoffs start, all bets are off. The Kings keep proving that, and eventually people will get it. If your team has a hot goalie in April, May & June, it doesn't matter that you snuck in as the #8 seed in the Conference. Chances are good that you'll be sipping champagne from the Stanley Cup in 248 days.
Hockey is a great game, and I know I'm going to see a lot of outstanding hockey this season. Sure, I'm hoping that most of that is played by the Blue Jackets, and I have a hunch that they won't disappoint, despite the injury bug. They have never had an healthy Nathan Horton, so that is no change. They have some terrific young forwards to help pick up the slack, and significant cap space and other assets if they need to go shopping. Regardless, Nationwide is going to be a great place to watch hockey this year, and the rest of the NHL is going to provide some fireworks as well.
I say this every year, and I'm going to keep saying it. Sure, root like hell for the club, and keep the Cup as the goal. But along the way, don't lose sight of the beauty and excitement of the game itself. You're going to see some incredible games where the Blue Jackets lose, and some crappy games where they win. Watch the other teams in the league, just to enjoy the game and learn more. My goal is to catch at least part of 1,000 NHL games this season -- without NHL Center Ice. Will I do it? Probably not, but it'll be a helluva lot of fun trying. Sure, there's nothing like the NHL Playoffs, but getting there is more than half the fun. Don't let the vagaries of individual games, injuries and the inevitable turmoil distract you from the game itself. It's a beautiful thing.
At the end of the day, it still boils down to this: Enjoy the ride. Go Jackets!